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Monthly Archives: February 2011

Jerusalem, the Old City

Arriving under a cloud of personal anxieties, the whole trip cast in doubt owing to Marcella’s unclear condition, I said goodbye to her at Schipol, her gate being in a different area than mine.  In security taking out my netbook I dropped the Nikon that I’d crammed in my bag just for the run to airport, and the telephoto lens was smashed beyond repair.  Luckily the body seems to have come out still working.  The flight was Arkia Air, an Israeli charter discount line, with the usual knee room for 12 year old’s, seats that didn’t recline – the travel-as-cattle approach favored by mass tourism packagers.  In Tel Aviv I waited by the baggage carousel until it was emptied, then reported lost luggage, and went to be picked up and  driven to Jerusalem.  In the dark, aside from the Hebrew signage I could have been on any highway in the world. My skeptical mind did its best to set aside thoughts of  “bad signs.”  The luggage materialized 3 days later.

Separation wall along ridgeline

Before coming a few friends had chided me for breaking the boycott aimed by some at Israel, and after arriving I was told that Mike Leigh had refused to come for something recently.  I recall standing next to him in a line in Stockholm some 20 years ago, ironically each of us up for a “best script” award of some kind, when we each – in rather different modes – work by improvising.  He won the $10,000 prize and went on to Cannes awards and its fame and fortunes; I, conversely, am schlepping around Jerusalem.  Of those who suggested I not come, while I too have severe criticisms of Israeli (and American) policies regarding relations in the middle-east, Palestinians, and for that matter many other things, I am not inclined to think hiding from it, or preventing Israeli’s from seeing my (usually very critical) work is going to do much aside from narrow the discourse even more. I think it’s better to see things up close, in person, and to try to see different viewpoints grounded in simple realities rather than from ideological/intellectual ones.

From the little yard in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher

As it happened I came in the midst of rather unusual turmoil in the neighborhood: Tunisia’s King had just been sent packing, thanks to decades of repression and its resentments burbling up through the new social networking softwares of the internet – Facebook and Twitter, and as I arrived at Ben Gurion airport the next door neighbors in Egypt were clamoring to say farewell to one of America’s and Israel’s favorite local dictators, Mubarak.  He’d signed a peace treaty with Israel, kept a firm hand on the Muslim Brotherhood, and for a bribe of a billion and a half dollars each year from the US, mostly for his military, he’d played “good ally.”   Both America and Israel were made nervous by this uprising, with Obama hedging his bets, and Israel clearly jittery from the prospect of an Egypt governed by the Brotherhood and the treaty perhaps in shreds.  So it was by chance an interesting time to be in the region.  As the contagion of rebellion spilled into Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Iraq and Iran, it seemed all the apple carts risked being overturned at once, disrupting America’s long cozy relationship with a string of dictators and authoritarians, all in the name of  “the national interest,” “security,” “stability,” and, of course, oil.  America’s need for oil – especially the military’s need for it (the US military is the largest single consumer of oil in the world) – resulted in us going eagerly to bed with some very oily souls indeed, and now the Faustian bargain made is about to show its full consequences.  So America, and its “best ally” were caught in the vice of hypocrisy:  preaching platitudes about democracy and freedom, both had put all their bets (except in Iran) on thugs and dictators who obligingly provided oil, military bases, and rubbery compliance to US requests – say to torturing victims of “extreme rendition,” suppression of Islamic “radicals,” a partnership in the “war on terror,” and other such pleasantries.  The only parties fooled by this charade were Americans and Israelis.  For everyone else the transparency of the contradictions between our behavior and our words was all too clear.

In my modest inquiries with a handful of people here, what I sensed was a pervasive and passive worry that the status quo, however obviously questionable and objectionable, was going to be overturned and the devil you know is of more comfort than one of Donald Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns.  A sense of foreboding hangs silently in the air.  My view, though, was rather different.  I am of the thought that the best thing for Israel would be if the occupants of its neighbors were busy being happy, building their lives, having jobs, being able to do what they wish, rather than suffering under the thumbs and guns of a panoply of corrupt authoritarians busy mostly bloating their bank accounts with Uncle Sam’s “assistance” while holding their people back from the modern world.   This game has been going on decades, originally under the logic of the cold war, and then shifted to that of the so-called “war on terror.”  Whichever the logic, it was all greased with that old oil matter.  But instead of working as the Beltway warriors and neo-con theorists of America’s right figured, the policy of suppression did as it usually does:  it bred resentment, anger, and precisely those “terrorists” it was meant to hold at bay.  And as America was the culprit, the folks around the middle-east aimed a lot of their anger at it. Most of the 9/11 gang were from our staunch ally and oil provider Saudi Arabia, but we didn’t attack them, did we?  Much of the theoretical underpinning is from Egypt.  To twist an old Maoism, while power may well grow out of the barrel of a gun, the virtue thus attained is at best dubious and doubtless fraudulent.  It is perhaps an irony that a major operative mechanism in these events, the internet, was developed by the US military, and that the social networking software was likewise an American invention, while the operative fable of the genie let out of the lamp is local.

Tourist junk, as usual

Jerusalem is, of course, a nexus point of some of the western world’s most powerful mojo: here gathered around the same mound of rocks are the vectors of Judaism, Christianity, and in religious terms, if not cultural, the newcomer of Islam.  They all lay claim to the same terrain, and each in its own manner, to the same Book(s).  They share many of the same prophets, fables, stories and “values.”   Here is the Wailing Wall (Ḥā’iṭ Al-Burāq for Arabic speakers), remnant of the Jewish Temple and where, by their history, the world was born, and the aura of God resides.  Today I went to the Western Wall, passing through security (with signs assuring the metal detector was, as it were, Kosher).  There, here on a Saturday Shabbat, hundreds of men in shawls and skull caps genuflected, while a rabbi stood before his flock, rocking back and forth, rhythmically issuing his words; elsewhere isolated young and old men, some in the Orthodox clothing of eastern Europe, sat reading the Torah; divided by a fence a lesser number of women stood before the wall.  The murmur of vocal prayer rose up periodically, people shuffled in and out.

Above them, up on the top of Temple Mount, in the Al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock, Muslims genuflected, their heads directed toward Mecca, touching the ground, bowing towards the birthplace of Mohammed.  Apparently being a Friday-Saturday rule, I wasn’t able to go there, but will do so tomorrow, Sunday, when from 7:30 to 10 a.m., I am allowed (Jews though not).  I was there some 20 years ago, and would like to return – perhaps a last chance.  The Dome of the Rock is, in Islamic beliefs, the place from which Mohammed took flight for heaven.  [I went on Sunday, passing again through metal detector and armed police, entering the Temple Mount, to find no longer could I enter the mosques – an inquiry later into why this might be so suggested that not long ago it was found that Jews were entering them and praying their prayers – of such parochial matters does Jerusalem occupy itself, spreading like ripples from this “sacred” place, toxically across the globe.]

Temple Mount, Dome of the Rock

Not far away – perhaps a quarter mile – others stood in a long line in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, there to genuflect in a similar manner, before the alleged burial place of Christ, alleged Son of God, focal point of the Christian Church.  There, waiting my turn, I watched people buried in Bible-reading, kissing the old stone wall of the Sepulcher, prostrating themselves in prayer.  Others, in groups, made their way to this place, following the via Dolorosa, the supposed Stations of the Cross route marked in every Catholic Church.  My glancing observation is that these days most of these groups are Polish or Russian or Ukranian, though one cluster was Spanish and another from somewhere in South America.

Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Being such a place, Jerusalem is a magnet for a wide range of religious followers, from simply observant believers (of whichever) to crazed fanatics.  The other day, heading towards my workshop I was stopped by a man, initially addressing me in Hebrew, and then, as I said “I don’t speak Hebrew,” switching to English.  As it turned out he was a French Jehovah’s Witness, in Jerusalem to learn Hebrew, doubtless to start attempting to convert the local Jews to his variant of their beliefs.  As it was, for a Jehovah’s witness, he was a reasonable man, and we had a reasonable talk about God, believers, life.  When, in response to his opening inquiry, “what do you think about God,” I told him he was asking the wrong person since I was a firm atheist and did not believe such a thing as a God existed, he didn’t fold, but instead began to engage in a reasonable discussion, whether just for tactical reasons or not I can’t know.  I suggested true believers, of whatever belief, generally require that others share their belief, and I thought this was a sign of insecurity – a lack of real belief that requires the re-enforcement of others around confirming that belief, and ultimately requires that you press your belief on others.  Like Jehovah’s Witnesses or other Christians (or other religions), who, for your own good, press their beliefs on you.  Sometimes on penalty of your life if you don’t go along.  At the conclusion he pressed, saying didn’t I think it was sad if when life ended, it ended.  To which I said no, that I found life wonderful, but that it starts and ends is just part of the deal, and the point was for me not that it doesn’t in some sense go on (in heaven, etc.) but that one tried to live it, conscious of its terminality and universal meaninglessness (as if anything in the universe cares about humans or life, our speck of a planet, etc. other than, temporarily, us) as best one could, whatever that means.  In this curious place, Jerusalem, to think, as I do, for example, that the universe could care less, if, say, a guy name Schicklegruber latched on to Europe’s deep-set, Christian-religion derived beliefs, and decided killing millions of Jews was a “right” thing to do, and did it, and dragged 20 million people into a mesh of death and destruction in process, would likely be thought heretical, a violation of one of the deep human tragedies of the 20th century. [Historical asterisk: Stalin dragged a similar number to death in his political re-organization of Russia and its empire; Mao did the same in China, and others similarly did lesser numbers for their my-way-or-the-highway ideological views.]  But so I think: it doesn’t really matter.  Hitler and Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot are not writhing in some hell now, nor is former President Lyndon Johnson nor will George W. Bush. They are, as all of us will be on death, nothing.  They may have “the judgment of history” on them, but the sun’s turn to a supernova will make short order of that; and surely many billions of years before that astronomical event, we will have deleted ourselves from the planet anyway.  And the universe will not care.

The universe may be beautiful but it just doesn’t “care”

Of such a view those who tend to “believe” are quick to build a logic, suggesting such is “nihilism” and that one needs, as my Jehovah’s Witness interlocutor suggested, a “belief” to restrain us from what horrible things we might do if not.  I noted for him that the Christian church has a long rather nasty history in this regard, and that if anything, it seemed that having such beliefs was a goad to ugly behavior:  believe as I do or else.  Religions are somewhat consistent about this quality.

For me it is another story, the simple story of what would one like in one’s own brief life?  Does it make you feel good to make others feel bad?  To torture them, psychologically or physically?  To kill others?   It is very clear from human history that for many this is indeed what makes some feel good, or perhaps that is not the right word.  But the question for each of us is not whether we’d go to heaven or hell, but simply, what would you do, here and now?  Most of us answer this question by doing what we are requested or ordered to do, and we prefer not to know what that really means.  Paying, say, taxes, in America means you are directly complicit in killing people, hundreds of thousands and millions, to uphold the interests of corporations which pay their CEO hundreds of millions of dollars each year, while others die, with a direct connection, from starvation, from disease, from economic pressures, from war.  In Germany in the 1930’s to be a good citizen you averted an eye as your neighbor was rounded up and taken to be killed.  So it goes in the world, our world, one ripe with good religious beliefs in which the way one’s self believes is to be imposed on others, of course for their own well being.  Even if, as has often been the case, with Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and others, that means killing others for their own benefit.

Jerusalem, being a concentrate of such beliefs, brings all this to the foreground for me.